Saag Paneer (or Spinach Curry) is a healthy vegetarian Indian curry that literally means “Spinach-Cheese”. It is bright, fresh and quick cooking (compared to many curries that are slowly simmered for hours). I make this Saag Paneer recipe on REPEAT for my family and I guarantee you’ve never seen three small children inhale spinach so fast.
I love paneer. It’s a fresh cheese made simply by boiling whole milk, curdling it with lemon juice or vinegar, and straining it (here’s my simple Homemade Paneer recipe). The result is a creamy (but not-too-rich) block with a mild tang and nice, semi-crumbly texture.
There are lots of perfectly excellent substitutions you can use instead of paneer. Interestingly, it is made exactly like ricotta, just strained of more liquid until firm. Because of this similarity, I tried this recipe out with both ricotta and its less-commonly available indian counterpart. Both were lovely, but the ricotta just needs a bit of prep.
To get the ricotta to a firm enough texture to cut in cubes, you’ll need to remove the excess moisture: line a strainer with cheesecloth (or a clean dish towel), pour in a tub of ricotta, pick up the edges of the cloth and squeeze the cheese to release as much moisture as you can. Then flatten it into a brick shape ( while still wrapped in the cheesecloth) and place it on the counter on top of paper towels. Put your heaviest pan on top to press it down, and let it drain for about an hour. (In the meantime, you can proceed with the rest of the recipe – the paneer only appears in the last step.) If you do go with ricotta vs. paneer, be very gentle with it once you stir it in – it’s a wee bit fragile (but rest assured, even if the cubes don’t stay perfect, it will still taste perfect!).
Halloumi or feta also make good excellent swaps for paneer. For either, start with half the quantity (they’re heavier and saltier, so you’ll want a higher greens-to-cheese ratio) and for the feta, just nestle it on top of the finished dish and cover pan to warm through.
Tips and Ingredients for the Best-Ever Saag Paneer
The biggest secret to Indian cooking that I have discovered is patience. You need to resist the urge to toss everything in together at the same time – the magic happens in stepwise fashion. Really take your time with the onions – they should be caramelized, not browned or just softened. This step alone makes or breaks a curry. Then add the garlic and ginger. Then the spices. Everything gets its turn in the hot oil (which is not used in particularly modest amounts – the fat makes a big difference to the flavour). And all throughout, you need to season it well. A curry without enough salt will simply not taste good.
I have used all spinach, or any combination of spinach, kale, swiss chard, the tops from a bunch of beets, and even a handful of broccolini and it was just so, so good. Mustard greens are a traditional option, too, but less easily found in grocery stores.
Ghee, if you’re not familiar with it, is just butterfat. Butter is boiled and the milk solids are removed, leaving a toasty, delicious golden oil.The grocery stores in my area are well stocked with ethnic foods, so I have it on hand – but you can just use butter (or make your own!).
The only other ingredient that might need explaining is fenugreek – a wonderful Indian spice that is a big component of British and North American curry powder. So if you can’t find fenugreek, use the curry powder you can get at any grocery store. Still perfectly delicious.
Saag Paneer | Spinach Curry
- 16 oz frozen spinach (or swap in any leafy green vegetable)
- 1 cup boiling water
- 4 tbsp ghee or butter
- 1 medium onion chopped
- 1 inch piece of ginger finely minced or grated
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1/4 tsp turmeric
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp fenugreek powder or curry powder
- 3 tbsp cream or yogurt
- 2 tsp fresh lemon juice
- 1 tsp salt or more, to taste
- 12 oz paneer or drained ricotta in 1/2 inch cubes
- Place frozen spinach in a blender or food processor, drizzling it with the boiling water as you go so it wilts and you can fit it all in. Process until very finely chopped, but not pureed. Set aside.
- Heat ghee or butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add chopped onion and half the salt; cook, stirring often, until very soft and golden. Reduce the heat if onions are browning - low and slow is the goal.
- Add the ginger and garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the turmeric, cumin and fenugreek powder and cook 1 minute more. Stir in the spinach, bring to a simmer, then add cream or yogurt, lemon juice and remaining salt. Gently stir in paneer and heat through.